By now it’s pretty clear I’ve been hooked by Birdman’s talon. It continues to rattle around in my skull, making connections to other texts I know and love and creating new shades of meaning and significance. I know the film has its nay-sayers, but I never want more than a text that really makes me think hard. And Birdman has clearly accomplished that.
One of the texts Birdman reminds me of is my beloved White Noise by Don Delillo. Like White Noise, Birdman exhibits many qualities of a postmodern text, both through technique and illustration of human psyche. I’m going to deal with the technique first.
Irony, dark humor, ‘play’—often comes off as ‘tongue-in-cheek’
The irony and play is heavy in Birdman. The first bit of play is exhibited when Riggan goes through a list of actors to replace the fallen co-actor and can only come up with accomplished actors who have played superheroes or star in an adjacent style of franchise–Woody Harrelson, Michael Fassbender, and Jeremy Renner. Riggan struggles with his own diminished fame as a has-been screen superhero, but unlike these actors, he’s let his “serious” acting long fall away. Renner has The Hurt Locker to counter Hawkeye in The Avengers. Fassbender has numerous roles in films like Hunger to balance his twice turn as Magneto in The X-Men films. Harrelson has The Messenger to play against his role in The Hunger Games. Ironically, the fictional actor that does replace the original actor is Edward Norton, who also has played a superhero in The Incredible Hulk but was most recently seen in quirky darling director Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. The levels of play in the real actors/roles/superheroes/serious roles is definitely played tongue-in-cheek for humor and ironic building of Riggan’s character. The cherry on the sundae is Riggan’s dismissal of Robert Downey Jr. as the newest huge superhero when RDJ also starred in the film adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short stories by Robert Altman, Short Cuts.
Experimentation with new forms, styles, and literary devices—conventions are overturned, assumptions of meaning made meaningless
Although some dismiss the continuous long take as a gimmick of the film, in fact its an amazing feat of cinematography. It is the most obvious of the ways the film experiments with style, giving the film a hyper-realistic quality, like an intense documentary. But this hyper-realistic quality of the film is overturned when Riggan exhibits growing superpowers through his seeming fantasy life (though the level of fantasy gets questioned at the end). The film likewise uses the drum score as both non-diegetic and diegetic elements to the story, throwing into question the boundaries of the film’s reality.
Pastiche—collage of various genres, parody
Birdman’s genre is hard to pin down beyond the label “quirky.” It is one part melodrama, one part satire, one part psychological drama, one part superhero film. This is pastiche. The film’s use of this technique is at its height when Riggan walks down the street with Birdman telling him to do Birdman 4. Soon the fantasy takes over the screen as giant winged antagonists screech and attack cars with fireballs. The film switches at that point from a backstage melodrama to become a superhero blockbuster, at least in appearance. This is still all contextualized as Riggan’s mental hallucination. The strange montage after Riggan shoots himself is quite literally a cinematographic collage of genres symbolized through the parade of franchise characters and marching band.
Intertextuality—using other texts as part of the new one
First, see the discussion of irony and play above, because it is rife with intertextuality. The various references to other superhero actors and films, both explicit and implied, is intertextual. Add in the audience’s knowledge that Michael Keaton also played Batman in the 1990’s but has fallen in fame since. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Riggan’s doing an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” One of his interviewers quotes Roland Barthes, a literary critic. Jake mentions Martin Scorcese and then Riggan’s replacement nose looks like Robert DeNiro’s in Scorcese’s Raging Bull. Near the end of the film Riggan passes by a seemingly homeless man reciting Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech. This layering of multiple textual allusions creates a pastiche of its own that isn’t genre based so much as it suggests the many conflicting texts we all have rolling around in our brains, some offering meaningful commentary or parallel themes but mostly just creating cacophony.
Fragmentation of plot or perspective, including temporal (time) distortion
The fragmentation of perspective is clear in the film. At times we take the camera to be objective, weaving its way through the theater’s backstage and showing us moment by moment what’s developing. At other times it seems clear we’re getting Riggan’s perspective, especially as the Birdman fantasy develops and grows. When Riggan jumps off the building and flies through New York, we’re in that fantasy perspective. When he lands and the cabbie runs after him demanding fare, we’re back in the objective perspective. The ending leaves us guessing about which perspective we’re in or if we’re in a new perspective altogether.
Furthermore, Riggan’s own perspective is fragmented with his growing split personality of Birdman telling him what to do and how to feel. Throughout the film we see more and more uncertainty in Riggan’s perspective, and as that uncertainty grows, so do his Birdman powers/fantasy of powers.
Time is also distorted. Through most of the film, we have a clear understanding of moment to moment thanks to that continuous take effect of the camera. But once we get to the opening performance’s suicide scene, time fragments in mysterious ways. The erratic montage of marching band, Spider-Man, et al. on stage could indicate a brief amount of time in Riggan’s head or arguably infinity if his self-inflicted gunshot wound actually kills him.
Incorporation of pop and “low” culture—cartoons, music, “pop art,” brand names and television
One of the major conflicts of the film lies in the distinction between high and low cultures. On the one side is the high culture of Broadway theater and the established gravitas of Raymond Carver, a classic American literary voice. On the other side is the low or popular culture of superhero films and franchise movie-making. Postmodernists ultimately want to break down the barrier between these two supposedly distinct levels of art, and Birdman falls right in line with that goal. The distinction between the true or high art of the theater and the pop or low art of the franchise film are muddied through Riggan’s attempt to break from one strata to the other. While it is easy to see the critique offered of the superhero films, the critique of theater is more subtle until the end. It largely comes through the mockery of characters like Ed Norton’s Mike, who are shown to be absurd and self-destructive in their pursuit of the real on the stage. The finale, wherein the Times critic lauds Riggan’s “performance,” completely undermines the higher status of stage acting by equating truth on the stage to shooting one’s face off.
Metafiction—writing about writing, making the artificiality of art or the fictionality of fiction apparent to the reader and generally disregarding the necessity for “willful suspension of disbelief”
The most obvious metafictional moment comes when Riggan passes the jazz drummer in the hallway of the theater, breaking down the wall between diegetic and non-diegetic music and drawing attention to the construction of the film. But the metafictional elements of the film weave throughout largely due to the parallels audiences can so easily draw between Riggan Thompson and Michael Keaton, both has-been stars of superhero franchises.
Imitation of and celebration of the cacophony
Ultimately there’s a lot going on in Birdman and it’s mostly chaos. The different threads of theme and meaning seem to fall apart. Riggan’s play, the film at large, and thus its view of human significance all can be nicely summed up with an intertextual reference to Macbeth:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Postmodernists have a hard time pointing to any one significance and saying, “That’s the truth.” Instead they bat around the options, value the questions over the answers, and I think Birdman does the same.